Is the Pittsburgh Penguins Dynasty Coming to an End?
Not only were the Penguins bounced in the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals in 2019, they were swept by the far less impressive New York Islanders. It is not to be disputed, that the Islanders were on of the hottest teams entering the playoffs, but any hockey fan would call you borderline psychotic to say the Islanders would beat the Penguins prior to the first round matchup between the two division rivals. For the first time in Sydney Crosby’s career, his team would lose in the first round of the playoffs without winning a single game. They were outplayed in every aspect of the series, and were always a stride behind the hungry Islanders.
What Went Wrong?
It was not that the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2017 and 2018 Stanley Cup Champions, were overconfident due to their previous success. It was their lack of a recovery period that drained them in the playoffs. The Penguins have made the playoffs every season since the 2006-07, when they rebounded from their previous 22-44-14 record a year before, to have a 47-24-11 record, but would be knocked out in the first round to the Ottawa Senators 4-1. That is 13 seasons in which the Penguins did not have a full summer to regroup, relax, and prepare for the next season to come. Much like the Chicago Blackhawks or the L.A. Kings of the 2010s, the Penguins would not get their star players the recovery they need. While Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are accustomed to a longer season and a shortened summer, the rest of the 26 man roster is not handling it particularly well. It is shown in their efforts, or lack thereof, to break the puck out of the defensive zone, and transition through the neutral zone and setup scoring opportunities down at the other end of the ice. Instead, the Islanders recognized their fatigue, and took advantage of the opportunity. After exploding out to a 2-0 series lead at home, they took to the road to continue their domination over the weary flightless birds in their own building.
Send ‘em Packing
With the frustration boiling over the disappointment of the franchise in the post-season, General Manager Jim Rutherford executed multiple trades that would send superstar Phil “Cheeseburger” Kessel, to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk, a forward that has had difficulty finding consistent production on an NHL roster. The Penguins would also part ways with defensive minded Olli Matta, as he is now apart of the Chicago Blackhawks. While the Pens would also pick up former highly touted defensemen in Chris Wideman and Erik Gudbranson, they are past their glory days and are no longer the defensemen that will make a forward second guess a pass in fear that it will be intercepted by the two-way D-men. The Penguins have found great success in younger players in recent years like forward Jake Guentzel and goaltender Matt Murray, but the departure of Phil Kessel might be too big of a move, as well as too big of an upgrade for the Coyotes who are currently forming a deep pool of young talent, in need of veteran leadership. There have been rumors over the years concerning Kris Letang’s longevity in the franchise, and the desire to ship him out while he still has value before he faces yet another serious injury that will keep him out indefinitely.
Learn from Other’s Mistakes
The Chicago Blackhawks will always be remembered for their success from the 2009-10 season, to 2014-15, winning three Stanley Cups in six seasons. However, GM Stan Bowmen refused to adopt the faster and more finesse style of the modern NHL, and instead continued to use the same core group of players for the entire decade. Now unable to keep up with the younger and faster teams, after dealing out all of their promising talent for skilled veterans with playoff experience, are now rebuilding on the fly, with hopes of making it back to the post-season one of these days. The Penguins are repeating the same mistakes, in the idea that they are constantly stuck with the 29th or the 31st pick of The NHL Draft and are unable to acquire any premiere talent. Instead, they are reliant on their core group, consisting of aging stars and their franchise player, Sydney Crosby and teammates Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang, and Justin Schultz. The Penguins once had one of the top feeder programs in the NHL, seeing talented, inexpensive players to fill in the lines with playmaking superstars. This strategy has been adopted by many teams now in the NHL and is now the recipe for success, however, without a good pick in the draft, they are unable to obtain any forwards that can fill in the roles, and as the forwards continue to play in the regular season, it becomes apparent that they are not suited to play an 82 game season, but instead are mere filler players that provide the grit that can only last a 25 game playoff run.
Pittsburgh will continue to make the playoffs, so long as Crosby continues to stay healthy and produce at the rate he always has. However, the Penguins will continue to become more and more tired as they keep making playoff runs. It will be more common to see first round exits or second round sweeps due to the inability to get the relaxation and rest that a long summer provides. Expect to see them resting comfortably at a top 3 spot in the Metropolitan Division for the 2019-20 season, but be prepared to notice a difference in their drive from this point on, for better or for worse. If it is the latter option, then Phil Kessel will not be the last star in Pittsburgh to pack his bags and relocate to a different city.